On the Preliminary Symbolic Meaning of Perfume

Weston AdamSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023

When the blessed Apostles
       were gathered together
the place shook
       and the scent of Paradise, 
having recognized its home,
       poured forth its perfumes,
delighting the heralds
       by whom
the guests are instructed
       and come to His banquet;
eagerly He awaits their arrival
       for He is the Lover of mankind.

Make me worthy through Your grace
       to attain to Paradise’s gift
— this treasure of perfumes,
       this storehouse of scents.
My hunger takes delight
       in the breath of its fragrance,
for its scent gives nourishment to all
       at all times,
and whoever inhales it
       is overjoyed and forgets his earthly bread;
this is the table of the Kingdom —
       blessed is He who prepared it in Eden.

– St. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise 11.14–151

Olfactory experiences, like all symbolic experiences, mediate between the life of the person and the hierarchy of the kosmos by using a high level of metonymical, analogical, and metaphorical expression. This should be clear to us due to the immediate physiological and psychological link found in scent. The link can be easily understood by the way in which smell is processed; its processing takes place in a round mass of tissue through the nasal cavity that is jam packed with several types of nerve cells. That mass of tissue is called the ‘olfactory bulb.’ The olfactory bulb sends the information of our olfactory experience directly to the limbic system of the brain, notably the amygdala and hippocampus, where emotion and memory are stimulated.2 As with great art, olfactory experiences take us through space and time, through emotions of the past, anticipations of the future, meditations on life, death and the splendor of the world and its Lord our God. Olfactory experiences, however, unlike nearly all other aesthetic ‘content’ in the 21st century, are explicitly and immediately relational. They cannot be mediated through screens, or cables, or textually. Even more: when one encounters other symbolic experiences, when visual art or music become too much for man, he can merely close his eyes or plug his ears, for he needs neither his sight nor sound to live. Olfactory experiences on the other hand permeate the whole of one’s respiratory system. The only choice in the face of unwanted fragrance, aside from fleeing a space, removing the clothes that one wears, or scrubbing one’s skin, is to cease breathing altogether. This might tell us a lot about how we smell, but what do we know about what we smell?

To begin looking at this question, it is instructive to look towards the past — to see what smell was for the world before us. In her landmark book on fragrance and ancient Christianity Scenting Salvation, Susan Ashbrook Harvey makes a very clear and definitive statement about what it is that we are smelling. In the very first paragraph of her introduction she writes,

Throughout the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean regions, a common understanding prevailed that sensory experiences carried effective power for good and for ill in physical, social and political terms; further, that sensory experiences carried cosmological significance, ordering human life within the cosmos. The place of smell in these cultures demonstrated such an understanding.3

Indeed, for the ancient mind, scent was one of the strongest expressions of ideal or absolute truths as it is ‘disembodied’. To the ancient mindset, abstractions were sophisticated, which is why, to the surrounding cultures, the Hebrew religion was so exotic. For when Emperor Pompey desecrated the temple by entering it unjustly, he discovered that their worship was done “with their minds alone,” for he could see no idol nor image of God in the Holy of Holies.4 We can say that scent provides a clear image of the way in which symbolism functions in just such an ‘abstracted’ sense. This is because the metonymic, analogical, and metaphorical devices at work in fragrance refuse to be merely rhetorical. Instead these symbolic devices align behavior performed within a ritual context to the larger world: ordering that which takes place within the ritual according to the proper hierarchy of the kosmos. This ordering is not only made clear in the literal fragrances that are used in our worship and prayer life, but also the language of fragrance found in our chantings and readings. 

The linguistic, imagistic and material elements of scent are brought to bear on one of the central psalms of Christian life, Psalm 50(51), which states: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be made clean.” One can first see hyssop as an element that symbolically partakes in the spiritual cleansing of the Psalmist. Historian Dr. Richard Price shows that Sts. Athanasius, Cyril and Augustine took this reading when looking at the Psalms through a Christological lens, stating: “It seemed obvious that ‘hyssop’ referred to the blood shed on the Cross, and the addressee could be identified as Christ himself. This interpretation led to the circulation of a version of this psalm in which this verse took the form, ‘Sprinkle me with the hyssop of the blood of your Cross and cleanse me.’”5 If hyssop was represented in the psalm exclusively by means of linguistic imagery though, it wouldn’t in the fullest sense be symbolic. However, through understanding that hyssop is also significant as a plant itself for the ancient mind, we can begin to grasp what is fully at play within its symbolic employment. We can see as Blessed Augustine tells us, it cleanses the lungs and has the power (so it was believed) to pierce “rocks with its roots, although it is a small and insignificant plant.”6 Thus, the symbol of the plant is a symbol of faith — one which functions medicinally, sensually, metaphorically, and spiritually. As Augustine says elsewhere of the selfsame line in the Psalm: “It is by Christ’s humility that we are cleansed; because, had He not humbled Himself, and became obedient unto the death of the cross, His blood certainly would not have been shed for the remission of sins, or, in other words, for our cleansing.”7 Thus we come to see that hyssop, in its immediate olfactory symbolism, treats us with not only the healing of the plant, but also the greater healing of the blood shed on the Cross. Hyssop then, emblematic of the psalms themselves, points us directly to Christ, yet without losing itself as a cleansing plant from the Earth which God created for us. Hyssop cleanses us from below, yet while pointing us to the true cleansing that comes from above — yet while remaining with us, and olfactorily cleansing us from within. Hyssop as an olfactory experience is abstracted in one way (it is ephemeralized), yet concrete in another (extracts, oils, tinctures and the like are often referred to as essences). 

Indeed, for ancient Christians scent did have a relationship to identity, for “Its most important contribution was seen to lie in its capacity to reveal identity. Smells were concretely evident when sights, sounds, and tastes were not; olfactory experience was tangibly perceived, although it did not involve the body’s limbs as did touch.”8 As St. John Chrysostom said, “He that perceives the fragrance knows that there is ointment lying somewhere; but of what nature it is he knows not yet, unless he happens before to have seen it. So also we. That God is, we know, but what in substance we know not yet. We are then, as it were, a Royal censer, breathing whithersoever we go of the heavenly ointment and the spiritual sweet fragrance.”9 In this way, an olfactory event of singular origin (for example, any single-sourced and clearly-extracted oil) is somewhat like the equal and opposite expression of an abstraction like the pure Blue works of Yves Klein. 

Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome (1961)

Both the painting and the olfactory event point towards the immaterial, towards the infinite, but the Klein pieces reveal infinity to be simultaneously the totality of the Platonic Forms. In short, they abandon the many for the one. This does not happen in the olfactory event of singular origin, for it remains properly ordered by pointing towards the Master and Life of all. And yet, when we return to the ancient world we see the question of the many and the one taking place within fragrance. For Susan Ashbrook Harvey illustrates this point by looking at the mixture of substances as doing something more than this single olfactory event. Looking to Aristotle’s successor, she tells us that, “What Theophrastus understood to be causative — the mixing of substances, resulting in smells being emitted — in fact captures the olfactory qualities that intrigued Mediterranean cultures: their invisible complexity, their production by blending their elusive presence.”10 While the exact same sensibility may not necessarily be at work in our modern mindset, it is true that the mixture of olfactory elements have continued to captivate and be underdetermined by the mere utilitarian function often ascribed to them.

Mixtures of substances produce the olfactory elements of the Orthodox ritual life: the incense for the Divine Liturgy and Holy Myron; this also reflects the making of fragrance that man wears outside the doors of the Holy Church. The experience of scent in our ritual participation of the Church’s services becomes the means by which our senses are taught. Thus when we leave the doors of the Church, we continue to walk in the ways of baptized senses. We are not speaking of the materialization of the spiritual, nor of the heresy of sensual mysticism of the Euchites, but rather the explicit mystery of the “Eighth Day,” whereby man participates in the Divine Energies — the life already hard at work in the Mysteries of the Church, and revealed in the Lives of the Saints. This is the baptism and transformation of all creation: a visual incarnation alone is not an incarnation, but an incarnation into our full life in all of its sights, sounds and smells can truly be called an incarnation, for to believe otherwise is but a short step to docetism. We see a visual understanding of the Lord present in the Prophet St. Isaiah, but we must understand all that he says. For example, Isaiah 52:7–8 reads: 

like season upon the mountains
      like the feet of one bringing glad tidings of a report of peace,
like one bringing glad tidings of good things,
      because I will make your salvation heard,
saying to Sion, “Your God shall reign,”
      because the voice of those who watch over you was lifted up,
and with their voice they shall rejoice together,
      because eyes shall look at eyes
when the Lord will have mercy on Sion.

Here we come to see the order of Earthly theophanies, culminating in ‘eyes’ that shall look at ‘eyes’ — God’s radiant face, the face of Christ, seen in His Personhood, which took on our flesh and became man. For as 1 John 1:1–3 tells us,

What was from the origin, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have gazed upon and our hands have touched concerning the Logos of Life — and the Life was made manifest, and we have seen, and bear witness to, and announce to you the Life of the Age, which was present with the Father and which was made manifest to us — what we have seen and heard we also announce to you, so that you may also have communion with us. And our communion is indeed with the Father and with his Son Jesus the Anointed.

Here the Word is united with the Image, the sensible and the intelligible. Yet, in Exodus 30:36 after God has instructed Prophet Moses the God-Seer how to make the incense that will perfume the Holy of Holies, He says, “And you shall beat some of it small and place it before the witnesses in the tent of witness, there where I shall be known to you.” We can thus begin to see, as it is made evident all throughout Scripture and the Church Fathers, that perfume is used to mark out the presence of the Lord, and to signify the state of blessedness or grace of his saints, their relics, and all other holy objects in the world. In other words: fragrance was one of the key ways of experiencing the Divine.

The scents that occupy our modern life are primarily fragrant mixtures that we wear: perfumes and attars (collectively from here on out, perfume). These provide intense and brilliant olfactory experiences compared to those that man ‘naturally’ has during the course of his life. They not only clue us in to their source in the Earth, but they also transcend their source: heightened in their expression due to their extremely concentrated forms, and combined with other extracts, tinctures and enfleurages. They might very well be one of the most liminal forms of art, directly mediating the divide between the profane and the sacred, by mixing the ephemeral image of the Earth with the scent of our flesh. These ‘images of the Earth’ are brilliant expressions of the paradox of the inexpressible beauty of God, with the whole of the Earth expressing and pointing the ‘smeller’ towards that Beauty. Ancient Hebrew texts (e.g. 1 Enoch, Life of Adam and Eve, etc.) understood aromatic experiences as imaging the transcendence of the divide between Heaven and Earth, remaining unseen, yet perceived — or pointing to the Paradisiacal Eden from our Fallen Earth. This fragrant ‘touching point’ was found even in the Martyrs — in the process of being translated unto the Lord they already began spilling over with the fragrance of the Divine.

Tincture of Acacia Wood

Yet clearly, as with the rest of the world, fragrance was made by God for the enjoyment of man. Indeed, our enjoyment of fragrance is paralleled by the Lord being pleased with our right hearts, proper prayers, and thanksgiving offering, as seen for example in Genesis 8:21 where, after surviving the flood, Righteous Noah ignites a thanksgiving offering, and its relationship to the Lord is seen when it says, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.’” This is also clear in Proverbs 27:9, which states as a matter of fact that “With ointments and wines and perfumes the heart is delighted, but through misfortunes the soul is torn to pieces.” Or in Song of Songs where the beauty of the Shulamite precedes her in verse 3:6, where Solomon asks: “Who is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense of all the perfumer’s powders?” St. Gregory of Nyssa himself explains this as a part of the reason why man was made on day six of creation, stating: “[God] thus manifests man in the world to be the beholder of some of the wonders therein, and the lord of others; that by his enjoyment he might have knowledge of the Giver, and by the beauty and majesty of the things he saw might trace out that power of the Maker which is beyond speech and language.”11 Indeed, in The Martyrdom of Polycarp we see a common image of the martyrs: that upon his death, St. Polycarp emitted a beautiful fragrance. This images his righteousness, symbolically ordering his martyrdom as a sacrifice, paralleling the incense (a term interchangeable with sacrifice) burnt before the face of the Lord:

When he sent up the "Amen" and finished the prayer, the men in charge of the fire touched it off. And as a great flame blazoned forth we beheld a marvel — we to whom it was granted to see, who have also been preserved to report the events to the others. For the fire, taking on the appearance of a vaulted room, like a boat's sail filled with the wind, formed a wall around the martyr's body. And he was in the center, not like burning flesh but like baking bread or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. And we perceived a particularly sweet aroma, like wafting incense or some other precious perfume.12

The very act of using perfume is an act which uses and hence consumes the work of art in order to experience it. In fact, the Latin word perfumare which perfume comes from, speaks to ‘perfusing’ something with smoke — to have odorous fumes given off by a burning substance. This is very much like the Latin word incendere from which we get incense, which literally means to ‘set on fire,’ where the ‘something’ is an aromatic substance. And yet Susan Ashbrook Harvey reveals to us that in the ancient mind,

The burning of incense was understood to be transformative rather than destructive. It changed the ordinary matter of resin or gum into exquisite fragrance, a substance intangible yet perceptible both by scent and by sight of the fragrant smoke. Altered or “purified” by burning, incense travelled heaven-ward: a physical image of ascent that mirrored both polytheistic and Jewish cosmologies.... Christians themselves cited Psalm 141:2 (LXX 140:2) on innumerable occasions: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, / and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” At the same time, sacrificial incense was not only itself a transformed substance. It had the capacity to transform the human worshipper who offered it, or even encountered it, into a state of exceptional piety. Its lingering scents attuned the mind to devotion and adoration both before and long after the act of sacrifice had taken place.13

Fragrances are by their very material nature immediate symbols of a constant state of transformation. Once a composition is completed, oxidization is already underway: time, light, chemical reactions, heat and the like are already changing the scent from what it was. What’s more, one ‘batch’ of a composition will vary from another of the exact same composition. That is, the replicability is subject to much more difficulty due to the fact that, for example, roses grown in the same location, of the same variety, and under very similar conditions, may still express slight variations according to temperature, nutrients, light, and the like. How much greater variation of scent is there with animal products, or those whose production itself is dependent upon great time and chemical changes such as ambergris or agarwood? Yet to many who approach a fragrance, the change is imperceptible. Is this not also the movement of the believer in following the path of the anointed Logos? We have no patience for the journey, we long for a quick and easy ‘Event of Salvation.’ The instantaneous, the need for things to happen without effort or time, betrays those fragrances and oils which have revealed their greatest treasures. Aged oils and vintage aromas that have macerated for an extreme period of time are often those jewels of the fragrance world that are hidden away, and shared only with the most devout seekers of the treasures of perfumery — fetching outrageous prices and often accompanied by a marvelous adventure tale. How much more is this true for the Christian who has patiently sought after and uprooted his sin? As St. Nektarios tells us:

We have within us deeply rooted weaknesses, passions, and defects. This can not all be cut out with one sharp motion, but patience, persistence, care and attention. The path leading to perfection is long. Pray to God so that He will strengthen you. Patiently accept your falls and, having stood up, immediately run to God, not remaining in that place where you have fallen. Do not despair if you keep falling into your old sins. Many of them are strong because they have received the force of habit. Only with the passage of time and with fervor will they be conquered. Don’t let anything deprive you of hope.14

Paradoxically, despite this ‘change’ being a constant of perfumery, perfume itself still manages to symbolize the incorrupt, yet in its use it is added to the corrupt. Incense for example is a performative sign of a transcendent world, one among many sensory indicators that Christians understand within the movement of the Divine Liturgy to mean that they are securely seated within the world of the sacred. Yet, often perfume and attars are seen in the world as being elements of a secular ‘fashion’ world that is oriented around sexuality, the world of the body and individual expression. This was clear even in the ancient world, for as historian Jack Turner tells us,

It was the Greeks, too, who made aroma a feature of exotic verse. Archilochus (ca. 675 – ca. 635 BC) wrote of courtesans who “with their hair and breasts covered in perfume would arouse the desire even in an ancient.” ...That this was something more than a theological or literary conceit is suggested by the fact that perfumes and spices were widely employed at fertility rites and weddings.15

But yet, like nearly all baptized elements of the world, this is the exact opposite of what scent does when we look towards incense at church, where we understand the censing of the church body to suffuse everything and everyone, and symbolically to de-individualize the people of the congregation into one body that is comprised of ‘members of one another.’ 

However, it needn’t be the case that the uniqueness of scent be lost in the unity of the body — much as the Persons of Trinity are not lost in their oneness, nor the saints who have become like God by Grace as He is in Nature.16 We see this in much of the symbolic interpretation given to Scripture by many early Christian authors. For example, Origen gives us a reading of Leviticus 24:7 where the diverse virtues, much like the diverse peoples that make up the Body of Christ, when added together constitute pure prayer. He says of the incense that is depicted therein that it symbolizes prayer, stating:

For do not think that the omnipotent God commanded this and consecrated this in the Law that incense be brought from Arabia. But this is the incense that God seeks to be offered by human beings to him, from which he receives a “pleasing odor,” prayers from a pure heart and good conscience in which God truly receives a pleasing warmth.17

Clement of Alexandria echoes this when responding to Theophrastus and Porphyry and speaking of Exodus 30:25, saying, 

That composite incense of which the Law speaks, an incense compounded of many tongues and voices in the way of prayer, or rather which is being wrought into the unity of faith out of divers nations and dispositions by the divine bounty shown in the Covenants, and which is brought together in our songs of praise by purity of heart and righteous and upright living grounded in holy actions and righteous prayer.18

Indeed, in Scripture the fragrant plants, oils and resins used by believers for holy and daily use are almost as varied as the people who would eventually be joined to the cup: aloe, anise, laurel, bdellium, calamus, cardamom, cassia, cedar, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cypress, dill, frankincense, galbanum, henna, hyssop, juniper, mint, myrrh, onycha, pine, rue, acacia, spikenard, wormwood, etc.

Top left to right: Cassia, Juniper, Star Anise, Cedar, Calamus, Cypress
Middle left to right: Spikenard, Pine, Wormwood, Cumin, Onycha, Cinnamon
Bottom left to right: Frankincense, Henna, Aloeswood, Hyssop, Dill, Coriander

Since local traditions have become baptized into the life of the Church, this list has grown ever more diverse for both the Church and her people. As we find in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:1–2, we are told to become like beloved children — with no two being the same — yet walking in the singular love of Christ: “Become imitators of God, therefore, like beloved children, And walk in love, as the Anointed also loved you and gave himself up on our behalf, an offering and sacrifice to God, for the aroma of a sweet fragrance.” And as we see in the Lives of the Saints, this sweet aroma isn’t just an idiom of speech, but it is a living symbol, as in the life of St. Joseph the Hesychast, about whom it is written, “As he was praying like that with great pain, a subtle breeze full of fragrance came from the chapel. His soul was filled with joy, illumination, and divine love; and from within his heart the prayer began to flow with so much bliss that he thought to himself: ‘This is Paradise! I don’t need any other Paradise.’”19 Or the disciple of St. Seraphim who, after asking him to explain the meaning of the state of Grace, saw the saint “clothed with the sun” stating that he felt “an unspeakable joy, calm and peace,” but also that his senses participated in the experience: seeing blinding light, feeling a strong warmth and smelling a sweet perfumed air.20 For as St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2:14–16), “Grace to God, who is always leading us in a triumphal procession, and through us making the fragrance of his knowledge manifest in every place. For we are the Anointed’s sweet fragrance for God, among both those who are being saved and those who are perishing, to the latter an odor from death to death, yet to the former from life to life.” May such Grace also find us.

The ancient things have passed away, 
And Christ, the son of Mary, brings to light all things new.
[O Adam,] Catch the scent of this fresh smell, and at once burst into new life.

– St. Romanos the Melodist21


Dedicated to Martyr Abo the Perfumer, of Tbilisi, Georgia

Weston Adam is the perfumer for and owner of Phronema Perfumes, the author of  Ideology and Understanding and the forthcoming  The Image of Man, one half of the noise group Men Behind the Sun, guitarist for Woolgatherer, and director of numerous films. Find his work at WestonAdam.Art.

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1.  St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), p. 159.

2.  Harvard Museum of Natural History, “Olfaction in Science and Society,” lectures by Venkatesh Murthy and Dawn Goldworm, YouTube, December 1, 2020.

3.  Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination (University of California Press, 2006), p. 1.

4.  This is a narrative frequently employed by Fr. Stephen De Young in his podcasts The Whole Counsel of God and Lord of Spirits, as well as in his book The Religion of the Apostles by Ancient Faith Publishing.

5.  Richard Price, “The Voice of Christ in the Psalms,” in Meditations of the Heart: The Psalms in Early Christian Thought and Practice: Essays in Honour of Andrew Louth, eds. Andreas Andreopoulos et al. (Brepols, 2011), p. 4.

6.  St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine II.16.24, trans. J.F. Shaw, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF), series I, vol. II, p. 543.

7.  St. Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John CXIX.4, trans. John Gibb, NPNF, series I, vol. VII, pp. 433–34.

8.  Harvey, p. 99.

9.  St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Corinthians V.2, trans. Talbot W. Chambers, NPNF, series I, vol. XII, p. 301.

10.  Harvey, p. 31.

11.  St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man 2.1, trans. Moore and Wilson, NPNF, series II, vol. V, p. 390.

12.  “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Bart D. Ehrman (Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 389.

13.  Harvey, p. 14.

14.  St. Nektarios, The Path to Happiness (Virgin Mary of Australia and Oceania, 2020), p. 3.

15.  Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (Knopf, 2004), pp. 205-6.

16.  Cf. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), p. 65.

17.  Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 1–16 13.5.2, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley (The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 242.

18.  Clement, Stromateis 7.6, in Alexandrian Christianity, eds. Henry Chadwick and J.E.L. Oulton (The Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 114.

19.  Elder Ephraim, My Elder, Joseph the Hesychast (Saint Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, 2013), p. 60.

20.  Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, trans. Fr. Steven Bigham (Oakwood Publications, 1990), p. 25.

21.  Romanos, “On the Nativity II (Adam and Eve and the Nativity),” in Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist, I: On the Person of Christ, trans. Marjorie Carpenter (University of Missouri Press, 1970), p. 17.

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